A homestead in Lumakanda similar to Elizabeth and Mzee’s.

Elizabeth died three days after her husband. People said she died of grief or stress from being disinherited. They were being polite. She committed suicide by drowning herself in the Kipkarren River. In Marogoli culture, committing suicide is shameful. Two years ago the 27 year old son of a neighbour from my home village of Wamaga in Vihiga County committed suicide. When I called the mother to give my condolences and find out when the funeral would be, I was told that there was not going to be a funeral. They had already brought the body from Nairobi, dug the grave, and buried him with no ceremony whatsoever.

In the olden days when a husband died the wife was inherited by the oldest brother. When I was ten years old, a man with three children who lived in Wamaga died in a vehicle accident and his wife was inherited by his young brother. The oldest daughter, Edith, was in my class in school and I often see her when I return home for weddings or funerals. What struck me as so odd at the time was that the brother was not even 25 years old and much younger than his older brother and the wife he inherited. Yet he moved right in to their house, had three more children with his new wife, and the marriage seemed to have worked out well as he never took a second wife.

This arrangement was clearly to the advantage of the family. The wife of a deceased husband remained in the family; the wife who had moved into the family from somewhere else plus any children of the first marriage were taken care of. This helped enlarge the family, which was a virtue in those olden days.

Then in the 1980s AIDS epidemic arrived. When a brother inherited the wife of a man who had died of AIDS so that the wife also carried the HIV virus, she gave it to the brother, who also gave in to his first wife, and so on, until soon the whole younger generation was decimated by AIDS, leaving the many children to be raised by the grandparents. By the 1990s it was clear that the ancient custom of wife inheritance had to be abolished – a change that was heavily promoted by the health establishment. The old custom quickly went out of fashion and the new custom became wife disinheritance. Now when a husband dies, the father-in-law and/or the brothers-in-law expel the wife and her children forcing her to return to her father’s house where she has no rights of inheritance. They take over the house, land, and livestock for their own benefit, leaving the widow destitute. I know personally three other cases where this has happened. With the new 2010 Kenyan constitution this is illegal, but nonetheless the custom of wife disinheritance continues as the poor widow has little leverage to enforce the law against the united opposition of the family she had married in to.

Elizabeth was a least thirty years younger than her husband, whom she always call Mzee (elderly man). She was his third wife. With the first one back in Maragoli he had six children with the eldest son being a high ranking police officer. With his second wife he had two more children, but she died a long time ago. With Elizabeth he had two more children, a girl eleven years old and a boy nine.

This difference in age got the tongues wagging in the community with some people saying that Mzee was not the father of the children. I disagree. Regardless of the difference in age, they had a solid relationship. Elizabeth willingly, even joyously, took care of her husband and he for his part took care of Elizabeth and the children. He always paid for the children’s educational needs and Elizabeth received whatever funds were needed to support the household. They were not rich, but lived adequately. Mzee had ten nice cows with as many heifers as he wanted and he sold the milk daily to the Brookside cooling plant in Kipkarren River. He also had many goats and sheep. Elizabeth for her part raised chickens which she sold. Their plot was near mine and sometimes I would go to her house to buy a chicken. I got to know her well. Moreover she attended Lumakanda Friends Church and we would frequently walk to and from church together, particularly after meetings of the United Society of Friends Women. While the women of the church often complain about their husbands, Elizabeth never said a negative word about Mzee.

Elizabeth’s parents had died when she was young and the only family member she had was an older sister who had helped raise her after the parents died. She would sometimes visit the sister in Vihiga and would take the children to stay with her during vacations. She herself never stayed away more than a day or two as she was dedicated to looking after her husband.

The dramatic problem was between Mzee, his first wife, and their children, particularly, the eldest policeman son. While I suspect that Elizabeth herself was one of the issues of estrangement between Mzee and his family, I think there were probably more underlying, old problems that had never been addressed, let alone resolved. About fifteen years ago, Mzee bought about five acres of land near Lumakanda and move completely from his original home in Vihiga. When he came, he brought Elizabeth with him. He never returned home again to Vihiga. One of his sisters once came to visit him on a Sunday. Elizabeth and the children came to church as they usually did, but, after church Elizabeth told me that she and the children could not return home until the sister had left. So I invited her to our house for lunch and a place to stay which she readily accepted. She only left after she had received the “all’s clear” that her sister-in-law had left.

I suspect that their solid relationship was based on the fact that both were in a sense “orphans.” She was literally an orphan and he was an outcaste from his home community. Consequently they had only each other to depend upon.

All went all well for years until suddenly Mzee had a stroke. Elizabeth took him first to Lumakanda hospital but because he was in a coma they immediately sent him to Moi Referral Hospital in Eldoret. As soon as the stroke happened, even though it was in the middle of the school term, Elizabeth sent her two children to her sister’s house. She went to Eldoret and stayed continually with Mzee, sleeping on a chair next to his bed.

Mzee’s son must have had an informant in the community because the day after the stroke he arrived in Eldoret accompanied by two of his police officers. The day after this, three of us women from the church including myself, went to the hospital in Eldoret to visit Mzee and Elizabeth. Elizabeth was clearly quite agitated, particularly as Mzee showed no signs of improvement and the doctor had given him little chance of recovery. Mzee’s son did not stay at the hospital but in a local hotel, assigning one of the police officers to be present outside the ward to report on any developments. He came by while we were there. Mzee was a somewhat tall man, but lean because he worked hard on the farm. The son was just as tall, but bulky – a “big man,” as we say, in this case not only because of his size but his arrogance. He did not greet Elizabeth nor any of us when he came into the ward. He stayed only a minute or two and then went to find the doctor to ask about Mzee condition.

It was fairly clear that Mzee was going to die and the tug-of-war between Elizabeth and his son had already begun. Elizabeth had already told us that if Mzee died she would pay the hospital costs and bring the body to be buried in their plot. We assured her that the Church would perform the funeral service. If this had happened, then the burial of Mzee in the plot would signify that the property was hers as his wife.

The son, though, had other plans. He had already bought a coffin to take Mzee’s body back to the homestead to be buried there. He would then force Elizabeth off the property in Lumakanda so that he could sell it. Although we did not know it at the time of the visit, he had already sent three more of his police officers to the plot along with a family member. The family member began selling off the cows, goats, sheep, and even Elizabeth’s chickens as fast as he could. They slaughtered one of the goats to eat nyama choma (roast goat meat, a Kenyan delicacy). Clearly she was being disinherited.

On the fifth day, Mzee died. The son paid the hospital bill and secured the body and put it into the coffin he had purchased and drove back to Vihiga with in. In such a situation, regardless of the new Kenyan constitution, young Elizabeth had no chance against her bully son-in-law.

When Elizabeth returned home late in the afternoon, the police officers at her house would not even let her enter the house to get her belongings. She came to my house, clearly distraught about what had happened. I tried to calm her down. I gave her some tea and some food, but she hardly ate any. I tried to distract her from the situation by focusing on how she now had to take care of her children. This didn’t work for more than a minute or two. She was nervous, angry, fearful, resentful. She kept talking about Mzee and then attacking his son. It was then that I learned that the son had once had his father jailed for a few nights. Since I didn’t want her to dwell to this, I did not ask for the details.

About midnight I became tired and went to sleep. I had shown Elizabeth a bed for her to use for the night. I doubt, though, that she slept at all. In the morning when she woke up I gave her some tea and bread, but again she hardly ate. She wanted to leave the house. I asked her where she was going, but she had no real answer. I told her she was welcome to stay at my house, but I am not sure she even heard me.

Two days later they picked her body out of the Kipkarren River. We couldn’t do the funeral in Lumakanda because we had no place to bury her. A delegation from the Church took her body to her sister’s house, convinced the local Friends church and pastor to conduct the funeral, and she was quickly laid in peace.

When I return to Wamaga for weddings or funerals and I meet Edith, my old classmate whose uncle because her father, in the back of my mind, I mull over the fact that the old custom of wife inheritance with its compassion and support for the widow and children was much preferable to the new custom of wife disinheritance with its violence and cruelty.

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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC) and Friends Church Peace Team (FCPT). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region. He is an analyst on eastern Africa issues for TVC News in Lagos, Nigeria.

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David Zarembka

Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC)

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